Les pêcheurs de perles, in concert, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, October 2010

Bizet wrote this opera when he was 24, during the summer of 1863 after returning to Paris from a three year stint in Rome. It was commissioned by Carvalho for the Théâtre Lyrique using as librettists Cormon and Carré, who had recently written Les pêcheurs de Catane (Catane, or Catania, being a coastal town in Sicily) for another French composer, Aimé Maillart. It’s reported that when they heard Bizet’s music they regretted not providing him with a better libretto, and it is indeed rather weak. The problem of how to bring the opera to a close was contentious, and when it was revived in Paris after Bizet’s death, the management loved the baritone/tenor duet, Au fond du temple saint, but didn’t like the ending in which the chief fisherman Zurga burns down the village so that the lovers can escape. They commissioned a different ending, and the loss of the original score tended to discourage productions of this opera. However this performance was based on Brad Cohen’s recent reconstruction of the original.

The music is much better than the libretto, and as Halévy wrote at the time, “After listening to the work seriously three times, I persist in finding in it the rarest of virtues”. So how was this concert performance at Covent Garden? Certainly Antonio Pappano gave a fine account of the score. He started gently, producing melodious sounds from the orchestra. Unfortunately the famous baritone/tenor duet in the early part of Act I, with Gerald Finley as Zurga and American tenor John Osborn as Nadir, failed to catch fire. It’s such a familiar piece of music that one is liable to expect too much, but I think the problem was partly that the evening took a while to warm up. The singers really only got into their stride after American soprano Nicole Cabell had entered as the priestess, with whom both Zurga and Nadir are in love. Her name Leïla was the original title of the opera, which was to be set in Mexico, but later changed to the more exotic location of Sri Lanka. Ms. Cabell won the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2005, and she sang beautifully here — she was the star of the evening, definitely a soprano to watch out for. Finley, Osborn and Cabell were well backed up by American bass Raymond Aceto as the high priest Nourabad, singing firmly and strongly.

As the evening warmed up we were treated to a very fine duet between Osborn and Cabell in Act II, a lovely soliloquy by Finley in Act III, and some strong singing from the chorus. I imagine the second and final night of this production on Thursday will be terrific throughout.

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